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May, Stephen. “Critical Multiculturalism and Cultural Difference: Avoiding Essentialism.” In Critical Multiculturalism: Rethinking Multicultural and Antiracist Education, edited by Stephen May, 11-41. London: The Falmer Press, 1999.


In this chapter May examines claims made both by the Left and the Right that the dangers of multiculturalism lie in its potential to essentialize and reify difference, so as to outline a theory of multiculturalism/anti-racist education that is critical and non-essentialist.

May argues that both conservative and liberal opponents of multiculturalism fear its pluralistic implications on the state of the nation. Specifically, those that are opposed to practices and policies informed by multiculturalism maintain that multiculturalism will inevitably divide the nation as more groups demand and receive public recognition of their religious, ethnic, and racial identities. May also focuses on Schlesinger’s notion of the “cult of ethnicity” used as an argument against multiculturalism blamed for disuniting the nation. From this follows a discussion as to how identity is constituted by the individual, the state, and by the collective and the varying theories and debates that exist around what constitutes a citizen. Thus, on the one hand special attention is paid to the concept of “cultural hybridity” and its use to illustrate how people counter categorical opposition and essentialist ideological movements. On the other hand May also examines the criticisms of cultural hybridity under the category of “the cosmopolitan alternative” highlighting Kymlicka’s and Waldron’s understanding of people’s demand for recognition as a demand to be integrated into the cosmopolitan rather than merely as a struggle for recognition of individual identity. A special section is also dedicated to Bourdieu’s notion of “habitus” and hybridity.

To conclude, May argues that a critical and non-essentialist multiculturalism/anti-racist education allows students to retain their cultural and ethnic identities on their own terms and involves “majority students” in the critical investigation of the normalization of “majoritarian forms of identity.”

Ana Laura Pauchulo